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  • Writer's pictureDave

On Teaching in a Pandemic || The Sand Dollar Ep. 5

I don’t think many of us could have imagined a year like the one we’ve had during 2020 and 2021. Really they are two years, but to me it feels like just one long never ending year.

I was already apprehensive about teaching in 2020, even before the pandemic. I knew that I would be subbing in to teach Music Theory for the first time at BSU. The regular teacher was going on sabbatical, and I had been tapped to cover two of his classes, something I was honored to be chosen for, but also insanely nervous to do. In our very first episode (Ep 1) I talked about imposter syndrome and how this can be a good thing, though it might feel good in the moment.

I was living the imposter syndrome life. Was I good enough to do this? Am I worthy of teaching these subjects? Will I be an expert by the time I teach them?

Of my 4 slated classes, Music and Perspective, American Popular Music, Music Comprehension 1 (MT) and Form and Analysis 1 (advanced MT), I had only taught one before. It was going to be an all new experience.

And then, the pandemic struck. Boom, classes needed to be online, or formatted to be taught to both an in-person classroom and a virtual one as well.

Suddenly, something that seemed already daunting and impossible was going to in a completely new arena. I had never taken an online class before, and now here I am getting ready to helm 4. Students who were already anxious about some of the classes, were now going to be in a completely new and foreign territory. And I was going to be their guide, even though it was new territory for me as well.

Now, the first few months, were a bit rough. It took a lot of time to find the right balance of work and time off. I was blessed to have some of the best students I have ever had this year. Some of these students were committed, they were not going to be held back by this. They were not going to be defined by this. They were enrolled. Now, yes there were some would were not ready for the challenge, and that also perfectly okay and perfectly valid. I can’t say that I would do any better than them if I were in their shoes. But what I can say is that the resilience I’ve seen from students this year gives me such hope for the world. This next generation is going to be a force, and I’,m just thrilled to be a small part of their story.

As I got farther in to the semester, what were originally challenges became commonplace. What was intimidating became weirdly normal.

I began to realize slowly that I was in my favorite year of teaching thus far. I feel kind of crazy saying that out loud.

I realized that you can have meaningful connections with students from afar.

I think that what this year has taught us is important. And I think it can be boiled down to two ideas:

We do crave human interaction. And knowing that is sacred. That I don’t think that we will take our personal physical connections with people for granted, at least not the same way.

But, we have also learned that there is a certain level of efficiency that is possible in a remote world.

Obviously, what I am saying doesn’t apply to everyone. I know that I am in the minority of teachers when I say that teaching online is an ideal place for me. I also recognize that teaching college students a couple of classes a day is a very different ballgame than teaching 7 year old from 8 to 3 5 days a week. So, of course, what I am telling you is from experience and it may not fit everyones experience or situation.

What is exciting about this zoom revolution, is that the old idea that you have to be THERE, in person, where the action is happening, has been CHANGED. I won’t say that it is gone, because of course it isn’t gone. But, the fact that you can log in to your computer, and be connected with anyone anywhere at anytime is a FEAT.

This is going to allow tribes to connect in ways that were just simply not possible before. The normalizing of zoom is going to open up so much possibility. How groups and gatherings are organized is going to be forever changed, and I’m excited for what it can bring about.

But with the zoom revolution comes an important caveat:


PART 2: Enrollment is now more important than ever

One of the true sides of this double edged sword is that it forces students to be ENROLLED.

Now when I say enrollment, I mean something very different than a teacher calling your name and you raising your hand to show that you are there. Something different than the number of students enrolled in class.

ENROLLMENT is the concept of being committed to see the journey through. It goes beyond physically being there, or having logged in to the meeting. It is about presence. are really you there? Or is your screen on. Are you listening to the lecture, or are you justing hearing it in the background while scrolling on your phone.

ENROLLMENT is a form of engagement.

Walking into the 2020 academic year, I wasn’t so sure that it would be possible to have ENROLLMENT in an online environment. That it would be too easy to tune out, click open a new tab and disappear into the social media whirlpool.

And that is the point. It is easy to ‘show up’ and ‘attend’ the class. Now, with the Zoom revolution, it is easier than it has ever been to click the box, PRESENT I’m here.

And it also easier than ever to do that while simultaneously NOT actually being there and NOT being truly enrolled in the mission of the meeting.

And it is because of that, that I think it is actually a good thing.

Because if you want to succeed, you have to CHOOSE to Succeed in a different way than before. It makes it painfully obvious which students are THERE, and which students are just there.

I can’t tell you how many classes I ended and there were participants still there who merely had their Zoom connected. Non-responsive. The could be taking a nap for all I knew.

So, like any change, there are obviously going to be those that don’t fit the model at first, or ever. There are going to be those who are not yet ready for the challenge presented by living in a forced digital world like this. It will take time for this to become normal. Change is never easy.

One of the ironies of this time, was that in a year that I could not be there in person, I had far more meetings and more office hours than EVER before. By not having to physically be there, time could behave very differently. I was able to give personal attention and tutoring to several students, which simply would not have been possible in person.

This new frontier has the possibility to bring enrollment to a different level. And I think we are only just beginning to understand how powerful this can and will be.

A virtual world requires enrollment, but having a frank and honest conversation about enrollment may be one of the best ways to bring students into it.

But in a world that will soon be defined by enrollment, the possibilities are endless . How different will it be to teach students from anywhere and everywhere who are deeply enrolled in the course. What we teach, how we teach is all up in the air.

The second semester of the academic year gave me an opportunity that I want to share. I learned so many lessons from this semester. In ways I did not expect.


PART 3: You see, My favorite class was one I taught for free. One that was not required.

One of my mantras is that the Content you wish to see, is the content you should make. And to that end, I am a firm believer that music schools need to update their programs and become more focused on entrepreneurship.

I have wanted to teach a class on Career Skills for a long time, it is one of my dreams to do so!

And for a while, I fell in to the trap of thinking, okay, if I ask enough, the school will let me teach this class one day. That they will just magically see how valuable and important this type of class is and they will allow me to do it.

And that unfortunately, that not how it works.

In Form and Analysis 1 (the more advanced Music theory course), we would usually end class and students would ask questions. Sometimes we would get into the big picture questions, the career questions, the breaking out questions, that sort of thing.

And after a few weeks of this, I realized how HUNGRY these students were for answers. And it became apparent, that I should just go ahead and start teaching this class. This would be something I would do for free, for half a semester. A 7 week course. We obviously couldn’t get to everything, but WE COULD GET STARTED.

And I had no idea how it was going to play out.

And I can tell you now, that doing this class, made me feel ALIVE.

Most classes I only had 3 to 5 students. Which may sound like a failure to some, but it was perfect!

Because these students were ENROLLED. They were there. They were going to come to class, despite it being an optional class, and they had questions and they wanted answers.

And it was thrilling, thrilling in a different way than I could have imagined.

And even when students couldn’t come to class, they had the benefit of being able to review the recording at a later time. Which is a highly undervalued part of the zoom revolution.

So, what did I learn from this particular venture???

That you can’t wait for the administration to understand how valuable what you have to offer is.

You can’t tell them it is valuable- you have to SHOW them.

By adding value, you can help others find meaning, that is worth not waiting until you get paid.

ENROLLMENT is ENROLLMENT, it is the ultimate form of Quality over Quantity. Having 3 people really listening to what you have to say is SO MUCH more valuable than a 100 hundred just hear it.

Teaching this free class has changed how I think about teaching and what is possible. It is a very exciting time to be a teacher. That the smaller the classroom, the better it is. There is less room to hide. You have to be there and you have to show up. It can be personal in a way that larger classes simply cannot.

So don’t sit on your great idea for a class. Offer it! Do it for free when you can. Be generous. Don’t worry if only two people come. Those two people are THERE.

I’ve taught for a only a few years now, I am by no means a master teacher. I’m not even close. But, I have noticed that every class that I teach, there is always at least 1, or 2, maybe even 3 students who get it. They are there and they are really listening. Yes, there are others in the class who get As who do there work. But you remember the ones who ask the question. Who stays after class. Who send you an email asking a question.

A small Zoom room just cuts out of the rest. Takes away some of the noise.

And that is a golden opportunity. So, teach your two people. Give them your best and it will MATTER.

Teaching, when done well, is a generous act. And this idea of generosity really hit me hard in the last half of the semester.


PART 4: How generous can this be?

Now teaching a free class to students who are really interested in the subject matter is all well and good. But what about teaching a class that has rigorous requirements, that has learning outcomes that need to be met, specific topics that students need to master. What about that scenario?

Not every classes is a liberal arts course. In Medical school, it is really important that you know the right answers to the tests, Because your knowledge of the material may mean the life or death of someone in the future. The stakes aren’t as high in some non-essential courses.

When I first started teaching Music theory, it was a very different ball game than what I had done before. I had really only previous taught an elective speaking intensive course that had very loose requirements. This class we had specific topics we needed to cover, that the student HAD to know in order to be successful as musicians.

I constantly asked myself, what is that I need to cover, what do they need to know???? I reviewed previous syllabi, reflected on my own learning in theory and tore through several theory textbooks to find the right answers.

And the first few weeks of the semester were hectic and hard. I felt overwhelmed and worn out and we just in the beginning.

But Everything changed, when I stopped looking at the course as a requirement checklist.

Everything changed when I started asking, how generous can this class be?

And when I say generous, I don’t mean an Oprah style grading frenzy, You get an A, you get an A! Not at all.

It is a shift in perspective. Instead of viewing the homework as: They need to understand this now. It became: How can I give them the best opportunity to practice? What assignments can I give them that allow them to explore and be creative? How can I give them more ways to understand this.

When I let go of the idea of the checklist, of the requirement, and focused more on the GIVING, on the generous side of teaching, that’s when I the class changed for the better.

Music theory isn’t really about music, its about curiosity. It isn’t about a checklist, its about an attitude of wonder.

(And please understand, I am not master teacher, I didn’t really come to understand this until really the last month of teaching)

Looking back I wish I had viewed the class from that perspective right from the start. I wish I had thought of it more as giving them opportunities and pushing them forward in a generous way.

I also wish that I could have realized sooner that I didn’t have to be the other teacher. That I did have to be this perfect mental vision of the ideal teacher. That the more I could strip that away and just be myself, the better my classes became.

So, learn from my mistakes.

RECAP: So to recap, the zoom revolution is here. The way we can meet and engage has forever changed. We now know that we truly crave human connection. We can now be connected in ways that were previously not possible. This is a double edged sword, because it requires people to be enrolled and to be THERE, even if they aren’t physically there. That teaching and connection work best when the group is smaller and more focused. That teaching is generous and that having a small audience is not a failure, but one of the greatest successes.

CLOSER: Trust who you are. Trust where you are going. Trust that you will always have something meaningful to share.

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